Beer of the Future

A new era of Oregon hops will better your brew.

Four years ago, things were great for Gayle Goschie. She was growing hops on the same 1,000 acres in the Willamette Valley that her parents and grandparents had tended, selling a key ingredient to Anheuser-Busch. The sharp-eyed, soft-spoken farmer vacationed in Nepal and Peru and had plans to summit Mount Hood.

Everything changed in the summer of 2008.

Belgian conglomerate InBev purchased Anheuser-Busch. Although the company had billboards trumpeting the Oregon hops in Budweiser beer, Goschie was fearful. Oregon grows the nation's best flavor hops and was once the top hop producer, but it can't undersell the cut-rate version grown in Washington's Yakima Valley.

"It was a scary time," says Goschie, 56. "We really had no idea what was going to happen."

Sure enough, Budweiser backed away from Oregon, as the new owner weened the brew off so many Willamette aroma hops. Oregon's hop acreage dropped 30 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to the USDA.

Rather than be another sad story about an old industry plowed under by the grinding efficiency of global commerce, the Goschies and their neighbors fought back.

That battle is changing your beer. Craft beer, an industry that's seen explosive growth, showcases the flavorful hops Budweiser abandoned. Craft brewers—who have long used the same raw materials as the big boys—now want better new hop breeds that tap the plant's extreme complexity.

Jim Solberg, a boyishly enthusiastic ex-Nike executive with a surfer's drawl and a few strings of gray in his shaggy hair, can provide them. Solberg runs Indie Hops, a well-funded upstart Portland hop brokerage that's already donated $1 million to refuel Oregon's hop research program, and built a $2 million processing mill. His company brings big ideas to a staid business controlled by a small cabal for a century.

"Indie Hops has brought a marketing sense, and they really want to highlight Oregon hops," Goschie says. "That's never been done before. I'm now thinking more like a grape grower than a hop farmer."

Solberg wants to do more than just save farms. His company is asking scientists to develop bold new hop varieties to grow on the land Bud abandoned. Oregon researchers are exploring a Willy Wonkaesque assortment of exciting new hops that taste strongly of coconut, blueberry and garlic. With help from scientists and brewers, Goschie and Solberg could create the beer of the future that shames the suds you're drinking now.

Solberg and Roger Worthington have deep pockets and even deeper roots in the Willamette Valley. The men, each 49, grew up together in Corvallis, where they snuck into Oregon State basketball games. Solberg went on to be a vice president at Nike while Worthington became a lawyer, suing companies over asbestos-related illnesses. They're beer lovers who wanted to unknot their neckties—and revolutionize what you drink in the process.

In 2000, Solberg quit his job to finish building the 36-foot sailboat he tacked along the Pacific coast. He also took up home brewing, seeking the perfect Northwest version of a Pilsner, a lager he describes as "crisp, clean, well-balanced, but has some hoppiness to it." In September 2008, just as Goschie was finishing her last big harvest for Anheuser-Busch, Worthington flew up from Southern California and buttonholed Solberg at the bottom of a third pint of Hopworks Urban Brewery's powerful Noggin Floggin barley wine.

"I've amassed a small fortune with my law practice, but haven't produced a tangible product my whole life," Worthington said in 2008. "I'm enamored with hops and the beers that showcase them. I want to be in the hops business in the Willamette Valley. Hops and craft beer are something I can get passionate about again."

"You really shouldn't drink barley wines a pint at a time," Solberg chuckles. "But I told him I'd research it."

Solberg found fertile ground: There was no hop seller anywhere focused solely on craft brewers, a market which exploded by 41 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to the Brewers Association. As it happens, Solberg and Worthington's home turf, the Willamette Valley, has the nation's best climate for aroma hops, an ingredient that sets craft beers apart from macro-brewers, who often substitute canned acid made from bigger, hardier new-hop varieties. With Bud's lessening demand—which a company statement attributes to a surplus caused by "favorable crop yields, improved efficiencies and continued changes in brand mix"—Willamette Valley farmers needed new partners to fill their empty trellises.

"Where there's chaos there's opportunity," Solberg says. "Before Bud pulled out, we probably couldn't get anyone to grow 20 acres for us. But now they're willing to take a chance on a start-up, and put maybe 5 acres of something in for us to see how it does."

In 2009, Solberg and Worthington set up Indie Hops. Their plan: to sell hops to craft brewers. To do that, they first need a unique product, which is why, in May 2010, Indie Hops promised $1 million to Oregon State University to recharge the school's once-vaunted hop research program.

"To think we were snot-nosed 11-year-olds growing up in Corvallis, getting chased by campus police when we tried to sneak in to watch John Wooden's UCLA squads, and now we're giving the university a million bucks," Solberg says. "It's pretty cool."

Next, the two need to persuade farmers to grow those varieties and then figure out an efficient way to process and distribute them. They expect to sink about $4 million into the project before they start reaping.

The two set up a picture-windowed office in the Ford Building on Southeast Division Street, around the corner from two of Portland's best new beer-centric bars: The BeerMongers and Apex. Solberg found eager ears on small brewers burned by big hop brokers—multinational corporations like Hopsteiner, Hopunion and the Barth-Haas Group—who cut tough deals during "the great hop shortage" of 2007, when a series of calamities spiked prices.

"In the process of that hop shortage, craft brewers were kinda forced to contract long term at ridiculously high prices—prices well over $20 a pound when they had been paying $5 or $6," Solberg says. "So we knew there would be an audience."

Indie Hops also invested in infrastructure, building a $2 million hop processing plant in Hubbard that preserves fresh hops in easy-to-store-and-use pellets. Without it, Oregon farmers would have to ship their hops to the Yakima Valley, increasing their costs.

The science is exciting, too. Hops are extremely complex plants; their potential as flavoring agents has scarcely been sipped because most research has been focused solely on upping bitterness or replicating the flavor of traditional European varieties.

"It's quite mysterious—there's something like 350 compounds in hop essential oils," Solberg says. "Contrast that with an orange that might have six. A lot of them haven't even been identified yet. It's still a specialty crop, and so it's not like that kind of money has been thrown into it to solve some of the mystery."

The young American craft-brewing industry has mostly relied on hand-me-down ingredients from big breweries, says Thomas Shellhammer, professor of the fermentation science program at OSU that’s getting Indie Hops’ cash infusion. It’s a task not unlike trying to make fine Italian food with ingredients from the same distributor supplying Olive Garden.

"Up until the last five years, they couldn't buy enough volume to dictate the specs," Shellhammer says. "There's a change now where the craft-brew business is now over 5 percent of the U.S. market, and they're using hops like they're going out of style, so they're consuming more than just 5 percent of the market, and they're capturing the attention of hop growers."

Craft brewers, in fact, use exponentially more hops. A 31-gallon barrel of Deschutes Hop Trip, for example, uses more than 5 pounds of hops per barrel. Sam Adams uses 1 pound in its flagship Boston Lager. Budweiser and Miller are made with only a couple of ounces per barrel.

"[Craft brewers] are using 20 times the hops the big guys are putting in, so that got the hop growers all excited," says Dave Losh, a statistician for the USDA's Washington state office. "Even when it's a small group, those quantities make a big difference."

National hop acreage has dropped 5 percent in the last five years as demand decreases and farmers boost yields. For the first time, craft brewers were the buzz of a recent conference of hop farmers, most of whom come from families who have been in the business for generations, Losh says.

Part of the reason hop acreage has declined is that American macrobrews have been getting less hoppy over time, Shellhammer says. Tests show Budweiser was twice as bitter in the 1970s as it is today. Hops are the most expensive ingredient in beer, so cutting them helps the bottom line. "They take it out slowly and no one really recognizes it's changing," Shellhammer says.

Click on an image below for a closer look. Photos courtesy Kirsten Veng-Pedersen.


Considering hops have been cultivated for 1,000 years, we still don't know much about them, Shellhammer says. Future breeds could taste strongly of coconut, mango, pineapple, onion, sage, garlic, leather or tobacco. "I think you'll find that brewers will use them like cooks use spices—as a blend," he says.

Demand comes because craft brewers are faddy, Shellhammer says, always looking for something new. The industry embraced sour beers, barrel aging and the use of European yeast strains in recent years. He thinks boutique hops could be the next big thing.

"They're in a business that's more like fashion—trends and flavors and trying to stay ahead of it instead of being behind it," he says.

The hop shortage piqued the interest of a number of big craft brewers who previously took their supply for granted. Some are actually growing their own, including Sierra Nevada, the third-largest American-owned brewery, which planted 40 acres around its massive brewhouse in Chico, Calif.

Downstate, Rogue Ales is growing seven varieties of hops in Independence. The 40-acre farm provides enough hops—standard varieties roguishly renamed "Freedom," "Rebel" and "Liberty"—for about a third of the brewery's needs.

"During the hop crisis we said, 'Let's make sure we never have to tell our brewer he can't use as many hops as he wants because it'll crush his spirit,'" says Brett Joyce, Rogue's president. "And now our hops clearly have their own flavor because they have their own land. They taste like nothing else anywhere.... We call it 'dirt-oir.'"

The idea of terroir in beer, ridiculous until very recently, is exciting to people like Shellhammer: "If you have a cabernet grown in [Napa], they have a different quality [than] a cabernet that's grown in Sonoma. I'm certain those differences exist for hops."

While other craft breweries are two time zones away from the farms growing their ingredients, Oregon brewers can have their pick from farms growing hops and barley in their backyard. "It could lead to some pretty cool stuff," Shellhammer says.

There's a big, green mess inside the tasting room at Hood River's

. Led by brewmaster Jamie Emmerson, a jolly Hoosier who jumped into beer from organic chemistry, Full Sail's brewers are gathered around 14 hand-numbered and vacuum-packed samples of experimental new-hop varieties.

The baggies look like pot—cannabis is a cousin to hops (read more about that here)—but smell strongly of garlic, citrus and freshly mown grass. The men rub the hops into sticky grounds then cup the mess over their noses and inhale. They finish by recording their opinions on a form.

"Oh, that one's really nice," says brewer Jim Kelter, inhaling deeply. "It'd do really well in a lager."

These are Indie Hops' competition. They're Washington hops, sent by a new company started by the people behind two of the biggest blockbuster hop varieties of the past decade—Citra and Simcoe—one of whom is a scion of the Haas family, the world's top hop merchant.

"I think the big brewers—the Millers, the Coors, the Buds—were always involved in this stuff," Emmerson says. "For us it's really nice to be included."

In order to succeed, Indie Hops will need to win over breweries like Full Sail, the second biggest in Oregon and one of the nation's 20 largest. The brewery is nearly equidistant from Yakima and Corvallis. The brewers are in Oregon, but as they rub and sniff, it's clear they have no deep-seated loyalty to either side of the nearby river.

"We're just trying to make great beer," Emmerson says. "Washington and Oregon both have some great hops—we'll use whatever works."

The rub-testing is a long, sticky process, requiring two rounds of industrial-grade soap at the end. Results vary.

"Stuff that smells promising does not always turn out," Emmerson says. "We had one that smelled like caramelized pineapple. We were really excited and put it in a batch. It ended up smelling like a boys' locker room, musty and gross."

Full Sail typically tests new hops only a few times a year. If Indie Hops succeeds, hands will be green and oily more often. Solberg's ambitions include bringing a new variety to market every year, instead of every 10 years.

In the meantime, Indie Hops is looking back to heritage varieties. Just as Budweiser's retreat from the Willamette Valley has opened up land, decades of Budweiser-funded research left a legacy.

"In that effort to copy traditional European hops, there were a bunch of hops that came out of that that generated some interest, but the craft industry wasn't there yet," Solberg says. "We're going to resurrect some of those old hops."

One is Santiam, a heritage hop from the early 1980s that has all but disappeared. When Indie Hops sent samples to brewers, it heard back from people who remember the hop fondly and from new brewers wowed by it.

Goschie Farms knows Santiam well because Gayle's father planted the first test plot for Anheuser-Busch.

"It was a gorgeous hop—beautiful—but it ended up not storing well enough, so Anheuser-Busch dropped it," she says.

Now the farm has a few acres of Santiam again, planted on land that used to grow the Willamette variety for Budweiser. The Goschies hope it helps them ride things out until new varieties from Indie Hops take root.

Maybe then they'll take down Budweiser curios hanging alongside black-and-white family photos in their farm office. If the Goschies could make it through prohibition—their hops went to a prescription tonic that "tasted a lot like beer"—they expect to survive this.

In the farm office hangs a picture from the farm's 100th anniversary party, when the Goschies set up enough chairs to seat half of Silverton under a canopy of white oak, and fed everyone sausages washed down by Bud. The Goschies invited wrinkled men who'd picked hops by hand for their grandparents to tour barns where banda music and big machinery now reign.

"We about ran the grocery store out of longneck bottles," says Gayle Goschie. "It was a great day."

It was also, Goschie says, the day she began to realize her farm shouldn't exist in a vacuum.

"In so much of agriculture, the farmer doesn't have a relationship with the people who ultimately use the product," she says. "Now, we get to walk the fields with the brewer before harvest. It's pretty special."

As she talks, you can hear Goschie unhitching her wagon from the Clydesdales.

"Craft brewers are artists and they have a passion for what they're doing that is constantly evolving," she says. "They're always reaching out for something new, some new twist, which is exciting.” 

Hop Back

Hops are the flower cluster of a plant native to both Europe and North America. A relative of cannabis, they have only one commercial use, providing a flavor to beer. Beer has been fermented with various bittering herbs for 9,000 years, but hops, which double as anti-microbrials, have had the lead role for the last 1,000.

There are two big classes of hops—aroma/flavor and bittering—added at different times in the brewing process. Aroma hops are mainly used for smell and flavor while bittering hops balance out the syrupy sweetness of beer's other ingredient, malted barley.

Aroma hops haven't traditionally been a focus of American agriculture, says OSU's Thomas Shellhammer.

"The big guys are hopping beer solely for bitterness, not for hoppiness—the herbal, floral, maybe a little bit spicy flavors from hops," Shellhammer says.

American hop farms like the Goschie's 1,000-acre spread outside Silverton, about 40 miles from Portland, began as a hedge against European blights. The Willamette Valley's temperate climate, which mirrors traditional hop-growing regions, was an ideal place to start, producing flavorful aromatic hops like what you'll find in Europe's great beers. The Willamette cultivar, for example, is nearly identical to English Fuggle, the hop up front in old-timey British beers like Young's Bitter.

In the 1940s, Oregon hops fell victim to the same mildew problems that challenged their European cousins, forcing farmers to Washington's hotter, drier high desert.

Big, hardy Yakima Valley hops with names like "Zeus" offer bigger yields and more of the bitter alpha acids big brewers seek. Their super-acidic resins are sometimes turned into a canned extract that can be stored for years. Unfortunately, Yakima's higher temperatures also seem to cook out the delicate flavors found in Oregon hops, says Shellhammer.

Yet Washington grows four times as many hops as Oregon and Idaho combined. Together, the Northwest produces about a quarter of the world's total supply.

Hops are a very specialized crop. Only 30,016 acres were harvested in the U.S. last year, compared to 72 million acres of corn. Losing its entire 4,600-acre, $23 million hop industry wouldn't exactly decimate Oregon agriculture—the state has six times as many acres of hazelnuts, for example—but it would suck for beer lovers, since everyone agrees Oregon's aroma hops are among the world's best.

10 Things You Didn't Know About Beer

  1. The largest American-owned brewing company doesn’t sell beer in Oregon. Miller, Coors and Bud are now owned by foreign companies, which left Sam Adams on top until last year, when it was surpassed by Pennsylvania’s Yuengling. Founded in 1829, Yuengling claims to be the nation’s oldest brewery.
  1. Oregon doesn’t have the most breweries in the U.S. or the most breweries per capita. With 245 breweries, California has by far the most. Tiny Vermont has only 21 breweries, but the most per capita. Oregon has 121 breweries, which is third most total and second most per person.
  1. Beer styles go far beyond “light” and “dark.” There are 83 different styles judged at the Great American Beer Festival, including sour beers, oatmeal stouts and barrel-aged beers stored for a year in whiskey barrels before bottling.
  1. Beers made with herbs instead of hops are called gruits and were popular until the 1500s. They’ve seen a minor revival in recent years, partly spurred by Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, a brew developed from an analysis of the 2,700-year-old drinking vessels found in the tomb of King Midas. Portland’s Buckman Brewing, housed inside the Green Dragon on Southeast Yamhill Street, is a leader, flavoring beers with chamomile, ginger and sweet potatoes.
  1. Dark beers are not “heavier” in calories than light beers. The color of beer depends on how long and hot the barley was roasted. Stouts, which use darker malts, are often lower in calories than brighter beers. Guinness, for example, is lighter than Heineken, Budweiser, Miller or Stella Artois.
  1. Some beer goes bad, other beer gets better with age. Mass-market lagers like Budweiser and Miller are best at their freshest. Full Sail’s Session lager, for example, is meant be consumed within 120 days, says brewmaster Jamie Emmerson. However, some high-alcohol, bottle-conditioned styles, including Imperial stouts and barley wines, can be cellared for years to allow flavors to mellow and mature. Portland’s Hair of the Dog is a leading advocate of bottle aging.
  1. The top-selling craft beer in the U.S. is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Oregon’s top offering was Widmer Hefeweizen, which ranked seventh among craft brews in 2010.
  1. The world’s largest beer market is China. The most popular Chinese beer—and the top-selling beer in the world—isn’t well-known Tsingtao. It’s Snow Beer. Tsingtao is China’s biggest export but a distant second domestically. The almost-clear Snow Beer is not available outside China and moved 16.5 billion pints in 2010, twice as much as Bud Light, which is second worldwide.
  1. The most popular imported beer in the U.S. is Corona. Heineken holds second place, followed by Modelo Especial and Corona Light. Mexico sends the U.S. five of its 10 most popular imports. This is a recent trend. A decade ago, Guinness (Ireland), Foster’s (Australia) and Amstel (the Netherlands) were in the top 10 instead of Tecate, Dos Equis and Corona Light.
  1. The world’s No. 3 beer market is Brazil, a nation now ahead of Germany and Russia. Skol is Brazil’s most popular beer.

Saturday is Zwickelmania, the annual open house for Oregon breweries. Breweries all over the state will be open for tours and samples. 11 am-4pm. Free. More info at

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